Community Colleges Meet the Needs of Adult Students

By Kim Court

Take a look inside a classroom at your local community college and you might be surprised to see recent high school graduates learning alongside people who may not have been in a classroom setting for a while. Many have been in the workforce for many years and are now looking to upgrade their skills or prepare for a career change. Some are stay-at-home parents ready to pick up where they left off years ago, and still many are returning to college to finish a degree - or complete a second or more.

The national average age of students attending community college is 29, (source: American Association of Community Colleges) and while many factors contribute to the decision to return to college, the current economic climate may be one reason community colleges are seeing growth in the numbers of non-traditional age adult students on campus.

Tonya Wilson, of Jamesville, knows firsthand what it’s like to return to the classroom. For nearly 20 years, she’s been a stay-at home-mom. But, she says, she’s always held onto the dream of someday becoming a teacher.

“My passion to teach and work with young people has never left me - I’ve always wanted to be a teacher,” says Wilson. Now a sophomore at Onondaga majoring in adolescence education, she says she’s finally fulfilling her dream. “My husband is established in his career and my kids are older, so this is really the perfect time for me to move my dreams to the front burner.” Wilson plans to graduate from Onondaga this spring and transfer to SUNY Cortland to pursue a bachelor’s degree.

When she returned to college, Wilson thought she would be the only student older than 19 or 20 in her classes. In fact, nearly 40 percent of Onondaga’s student population is comprised of adult learners. Since flexibility and convenience are often the keys to success for people who juggle both work and family priorities, Onondaga offers hundreds of classes in the evening, on weekends and online.

But flexible class schedules are just part of the picture. Without the support services that traditional “day” students receive, adult learners can often feel disconnected and out of touch, particularly if work or family obligations make it nearly impossible to come to the campus between the hours of 9 and 5.

Jerry Farnett is Onondaga’s evening program coordinator. He works with evening students to learn what they need to be successful. “My job is to provide key services for students by bringing a little of what goes on during the day, into the evening,” says Farnett. “We’ve partnered with many support services to create information sessions, new student orientations and study skills workshops all at times that are convenient for working adults.”

For Tonya Wilson, returning to the classroom wasn’t a difficult adjustment. On the contrary, it only fueled her passion for education. “One of the reasons I want to teach is to show young people that they can do anything they set their minds to,” says Wilson. “Going back to college has been very rewarding and it’s inspiring me to continue pushing to reach my potential.” 

The students aren’t the only ones who benefit from their time in the classroom. Professors value the life experience that students who have been in the work force for a number of years can bring to the classroom discussions and they admire their commitment and perseverance.

“The wealth of experience that nontraditional age students bring with them to the classroom is unprecedented,” said nursing professor Peggy Przybycien. “Most of them have been in other careers, and are here because they want to be…they know what they want, and are mature and driven to succeed.”

To learn more about the options and services Onondaga provides go to the Adult Learner section of the site.